Why McDonald's Is Getting it Wrong

07/14/2010 05:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Ujwal Arkalgud Cultural anthropologist and co-founder at, the leader in Digital Motivation Research

McDonald's seems to be trying to re-position itself. We can already begin to see changes in the menu (the addition of healthier items) and ads featuring what could only be imagined as cultured, urban, hip women getting together to eat a healthy meal at the restaurant.

But it won't work.

Okay, I concede that they might end up selling some of the new items on the menu, but the company's brand position will not change. Here's why:

McDonald's core consumers don't really care

I like to think of McDonald's consumers as consisting of 2 distinct groups. The first group is comprised of loyal customers who eat at the restaurant chain multiple times a week. McDonald's doesn't make it's revenues because it sells healthy food. It makes money because it sells freakishly yummy food at a very reasonable price. The restaurant chain's loyal customer doesn't go there to eat oatmeal. Just sayin'.

The second group, I like to call the "gluttonous healthy urbans". For this group, McDonald's is all about the ability to indulge, once in a while. This group cares about eating healthy and lives a lifestyle where it's not exactly considered "cool" to eat at McDonald's...or meet someone there for a meal. So this whole visual of urban, professional women eating a comparatively (they do use dressing on that salad!) healthy meal at the restaurant doesn't really work for me.

[Yes I know, kids make up a key segment for McDonald's but the purpose of this blog post isn't to talk segmentation.]

Here's how McDonald's should be approaching this

1. Conducting an ethnographic study of consumers at McDonald's

The key to understanding the various personas (groups of people who share common characteristics/buying patters) is to totally immerse oneself in the sub-cultures of those who visit McDonald's. It's the only way to truly understand the motivations of different types of people who eat at the restaurant chain. Unfortunately, an anthropological study requires forward thinking marketing executives, patience and quality ethnographers (all of which are highly lacking in most companies today).

2. Using the results to develop programs, menu and ambiance changes that enhance the customer experience

Here's a simple example: If McDonald's understood that the only reason I visit the restaurant is to indulge and seek instant gratification, their menu would've included optional ingredients that could make my indulgence experience slightly healthier (and possibly make me want to visit the chain more often).

Similarly, knowing that Sunday morning "Egg McMuffins" are considered one of the best hangover remedies among party-goers might make the chain act differently and develop programs, campaigns and promotions that are culturally relevant.

You with me? How do you think we can make organizations understand the importance of cultural immersion? How can we make organizations more relevant and engaging to consumers?